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Challenges For Obama’s Afghan Strategy


U.S. Army soldiers await departure for their deployment to Afghanistan in Fort Carson, Colorado

U.S. Army soldiers await departure for their deployment to Afghanistan in Fort Carson, Colorado

President Barack Obama’s announced intention to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan is being questioned, not so much for his intent to help the Afghan people, but for his timeline for eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Mr. Obama’s plan calls for the withdrawal of troops by the summer of 2011. Critics on the left want the troops out now, saying the war in Afghanistan has already lasted eight years. Others, especially Mr. Obama’s conservative opposition, question the wisdom of announcing a specific exit date.

Given follow-up testimony before the U.S. Congress last week by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it has become clear that the president’s timeline for a drawdown is less a commitment than an aspiration.

Gates vowed the U.S. partnership with the Afghan government and other countries in the region would not be fleeting. “Our government will not again turn our back on this country or this region,” he said. “We will fight by your side until the Afghan forces are strong enough to secure that nation on their own.”

Reaction in Afghanistan

Afghan President Hamid Karzai weighed in on Mr. Obama’s plan, indicating it may be five years before his army and police are ready to take on insurgents – and 15 to 20 years before his government can afford to pay for its own security.

Beyond Mr. Karzai, Afghans are split in their opinions about the Obama withdrawal plan. “People who analyze the Afghan situation think the deadline is good because in those 18 months probably both the U.S. coalition forces and the Afghan government will work hard to train the Afghan armed forces,” says Afghan analyst Alam Payind. “It will put pressure on the Karzai government to implement reforms and reduce the corruption.” he added. Payind is director of the Middle East Studies Center at the Ohio State University.

On the other hand, Payind says Afghans who oppose the deadline argue that it will embolden the insurgents. Even more important, he says, is the weakness of the Karzai government. “And that doesn’t even address the issues of opium production and trafficking, which fuel and criminalize the economy, and in which some ministers are involved,” says Payind.

Fear of Repeating Past Mistakes

“President Obama’s announcement ignored the contribution of America’s previous lack of sustained involvement in Afghanistan,” says Roy Gutman. Foreign editor of the McClatchy newspaper chain, Gutman is also the author of How We Missed the Story: Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and the Hijacking of Afghanistan.

“If you go back to the period of the Russian invasion, which was 30 years ago this month, the United States played a huge role funding and arming the Afghan resistance,” Gutman recalls. But he also notes after the Soviets were forced to leave Afghanistan in 1989, the United States lost interest in the country. That interest in the region would be renewed in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks against New York and Washington.

Pakistan’s Key Role Then and Now

“Our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan,” President Obama told the American people last week. But while Pakistanis fault the United States for helping to create the instability the region faces today, opinion there is split on what the U.S. role should be.

“The strange and interesting fact is that both Pakistanis and Afghans have been complaining for the last several decades about America walking away from Afghanistan and Pakistan after the Soviets left in the 1980s,” says former Pakistani diplomat Akbar Ahmed. At the same time, Ahmed says “one finds a great deal of anti-Americanism among Pakistanis today.” Ahmed, who chairs the Islamic Studies department at the American University in Washington, says part of that anger is fueled by the U.S. drone attacks in the tribal regions of Pakistan. Those attacks have been blamed for the deaths of an estimated 500 to 600 innocent civilians.

So, Ahmed concludes, there is a Pakistani paradox. “While Pakistanis may not be particularly happy about so many Americans being involved on this side of the border, at the same time they don’t want America to just pack up and leave,” he explains.

The Limited Options

“The immense task America now faces in the region is greatly aggravated by Afghanistan’s weak central government,” Gutman says. The Afghan government of Hamid Karzai hasn’t helped its own cause in that respect. Perceived corruption within the government, and especially during the president’s re-election, didn’t win Mr. Karzai much respect within his own country or the international community.

But Gutman warns that circumventing the Afghan President by turning to regional leaders would carry a greater risk – making Afghanistan so decentralized that it could become ungovernable. Gutman’s prediction: “It’s not going to be over in 18 months.”

Akbar Ahmed, Roy Gutman, and Alam Payind were interviewed by VOA’s Judith Latham on the 10 December edition of International Press Club.

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